Featured Student: Katie Brownson

Katie is a Ph.D. student in Integrative Conservation based in the Odum School of Ecology. Her research will focus on assessing the efficacy of Payment for Watershed Services (PWS) programs in the Americas in terms of their socioecological outcomes. She is particularly interested in identifying trade-offs that are being made between competing social, ecological and economic goals as well as identifying tools that can be used at the science-policy interface to help mediate these trade-offs.

Katie’s interest in water resources and watershed services developed while working for Fungi Perfecti, a small business in western Washington state, prior to starting the ICON program. While Fungi Perfecti researched a variety of novel fungal-based biotechnologies, Katie’s passion was in the development of mycofiltration, which used fungal mycelium to filter bacterial pathogens from stormwater[1]. Working with living systems to clean contaminated water made it clear to her that nature has already developed solutions for providing us with clean water and, as humans, we have much to learn from studying these ecological processes.

For her dissertation research, Katie will focus on a broad range of watershed services, including water purification, flood regulation and erosion control, among others. As awareness has grown regarding the value of watershed services provided by intact ecosystems, so has awareness regarding the impacts of anthropogenic activities on ecological processes and the corresponding services these processes provide. Payment for Watershed Services programs have developed in response to this growing awareness and provide financial incentives for landowners to manage their land to help ensure the continued provisioning of these services.

A major driver for PWS programs is the recognition that natural ecosystems are able to provide these services at a lower cost than more conventional techniques. PWS programs are also often driven by poverty alleviation goals in developing nations, as a means to provide additional income for the rural poor in exchange for the implementation of more sustainable land management practices. While these programs have been developing rapidly around the world and are often promoted for their ability to generate “win-win” outcomes for people and ecosystems alike, there is very little data demonstrating the impacts these programs have had on ecosystems or local communities. By taking a broad approach and surveying PWS programs throughout the Americas, Katie aims to identify trade-offs that are being made and “best practices” that can be used to navigate these trade-offs in a variety of socioeconomic contexts.

A critical element of Katie’s work will be in identifying and utilizing tools that have been developed in recent years to help strengthen the science-policy interface around watershed services. Tools like InVEST (Integrated Valuation of Environmental Services and Tradeoffs) have been designed to help decision-makers model the potential costs and benefits associated with various management scenarios in terms of ecosystem services. These tools help strengthen the science-policy interface by providing a means to quantify the watershed services and ecological processes in a format that is easily interpreted and used by environmental managers and policy makers. Katie’s interest in integrating the science-policy interface into her research grew while completing an internship with the International Water Resources Association (IWRA) in Montpellier, France. Her work with IWRA focused on developing an institutional mapping of the international science-policy interface as it relates to climate change and water resources. This mapping exercise made it apparent to Katie that, while many institutions are attempting to bridge science and policy, more communication is needed between scientists and policy makers. In terms of ecosystem services research, tools like InVEST (and others) may be a viable mechanism for bringing scientists and policy makers together around the common goal of improving watershed health.

Katie’s experience with the ICON program to date has strengthened her resolve to take an integrative, socioecological approach to her research. In addressing watershed health from multiple perspectives, she hopes to help ensure sustainability in the provisioning of watershed services, for social and ecological communities alike.

[1] Alex Taylor, Alicia Flatt, Marc Beutel, Morgan Wolff, Katherine Brownson, Paul Stamets, Removal of Escherichia coli from synthetic stormwater using mycofiltration, Ecological Engineering, Available online 17 June 2014.